Saturday, February 2, 2013

49. How to Keep Readers Turning Pages. Part II: Make life tough for your protagonist

In the last post I talked about building suspense into your novel by using cliff-hanging chapter endings. Another, even more important technique, is to make sure readers identify with your main character, then thwart that character every chance you get.

In a mystery or thriller, a good way to thwart your character is to place her in physical danger. In a romance, make sure that the would-be lovers misunderstand each other’s intentions, like many of the heroes in Jane Austen novels, or that there are serious outside pressures against the romance (as in Romeo and Juliet). Assuming your readers care about your characters, they will keep reading to see how the characters overcome these obstacles.


After all, if the two love interests in a novel meet, get along great, and don’t even have opposition from their families, why should anyone keep reading? If the dauntless detective follows one clue to another, in a straight line, and catches the villain without any peril or hassle, what’s the point in turning pages?

Here is the catch: working out a series of believable obstacles can be hard. But it is worth it if it keeps your readers reading.

In my third Pandora’s book there are plenty of major twists and turns in the plot, but I’m trying to focus on the small twists to keep the suspense going. For example, Zach and his traveling companion will confront major perils when they reach the Western West, but it’s a long and arduous trip there. A relatively minor obstacle that I have already written about is crossing the Mississippi river

As I’ve worked on revising this scene, however, I have come to realize that my original conception was too easy, so I’ve added the following obstacles: suspicious, hostile  townspeople; the necessity for the protagonists to prove they are who they say they are (which they are not, by the way); an exorbitant demand for money to use the town’s ferry; and the sudden, possibly calamitous recognition of Zach and his companion by one of the townspeople. (This last, by the way, makes an excellent chapter-ending cliff.)

The resolution to each obstacle in this journey to the Western West is always created by the protagonists themselves; and my hope is that each should feel satisfying and move the story along at the same time.